Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Over The Bridge – it turns out that both trade unions and religion can be ungodly in this revival of the popular censored play (Bright Umbrella Drama Company, until 2 April)

Sam Thompson’s Over The Bridge stirred up emotions when it was first performed in 1960. It tells the story of tumultuous times at a Belfast shipyard where inflexible trade unionism intersected with growing sectarian ill-feeling to create a dispute that threatened lives and livelihoods.

Renowned actor and director James Ellis took Thompson’s script and rehearsals began at the Ulster Group Theatre. The board of directors set themselves against the production. Ellis and other actors resigned from the Ulster Group Theatre and set up their own company, with Over The Bridge eventually opening at the Empire Theatre. Being ‘banned’ didn’t harm its box office success: an estimated 42,000 people attended during its six week run, a Belfast record … though the play fared less well on London’s West End closing after a handful of performances.

Watching the play in 2022, I guess that it’s one of those familiar occasions of blind censorship when many of those who set themselves against something may not have even read or understood what it is about. Far from Over The Bright being a simple tale of a sectarian working environment, it tells a much more complex story.

Socialist Thompson’s harshest critique and disappointment is aimed at the trade unions. Shop stewards and union officials revel in doing things by their rule book, finding every opportunity to exercise alternative power and put a spanner in the management works, and going out of their way to deny work to anyone who won’t join up or stay in their ranks. Hierarchy and judgement is all around: if you’re not in the Orange Lodge then “you’re a part time Prod”.

The union’s tolerance of religious bigotry is a distant second to their quest for control. There’s a them and us tussle that fails to address or stop the sectarian uprising on the factory floor. The bigoted attitudes are bad, but that those with the power to nip it in the bud fail to do the right thing, is probably worse. Turns out both trade unions and religion can be ungodly.

Soon we get the measure of hymn-singing Rabbie White (Glenn McGivern) and the somewhat officious Warren Baxter (Matthew Cassidy) who often turns out to be a voice of reason. Director Trevor Gill plays the Catholic worker Peter O’Boyle who finds himself the victim of a whispering campaign accusing him of spreading republicanism. Another victim comes in the shape of a ‘born again’ worker whose conscience can’t square his gospel with continuing membership of the union.

It’s a play of its time, with a nearly exclusively male first half, and limited agency for women after the interval. Jenny McCarley makes quite an entrance as Nellie Mitchell with a weaponised umbrella, while Marian (Fiona Roberts) and Martha (Paula Byrne) are more placid as they do the ironing.

The Bright Umbrella Drama Company bring Sam Thompson’s work back into the heart of East Belfast, clambering about the scaffolded set in their Sanctuary Theatre space on Castlereagh Street. Clara Kerr’s opening choreography introduces the sounds of the shipyard and the men’s tools.

A mixed experience cast of fourteen at times crowd the narrow stage. While the pace and intensity oscillates between cast members and scenes, Thompson’s words are never lost, and the drama on stage still resonates with today’s political and occupational climate. Sam Thompson’s Over The Bridge is much more sophisticated and insightful social commentary than Joseph Tomelty’s rather bland The McCooeys. Simple binaries are eschewed in favour of characters who simultaneously straddle the axes of good and evil.

The size of the cast required to stage Over The Bridge means that productions of this important work will be few and far between. Four extra shows have been added to the end of Bright Umbrella’s tour which took in Newry, Derry, Dublin and Omagh. You can catch the final performances on Thursday 31 March and Saturday 2 April in their Belfast home venue.

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